- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2001

House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Sen. Phil Gramm's decisions to leave Congress at the end of next year will further weaken the GOP's dangerously deteriorating leadership in behalf of free-market economics.

These two men have been the Republican Party's most effective lawmakers on a lot of issues, but it is their leadership on the nation's economic-growth agenda that will be most sorely missed. When they leave office, the GOP is going to lose two of its most untiring advocates for the cause of economic freedom.

Before they entered politics, both taught economics in college, a subject that is only dimly understood by many of their colleagues. They became important foot soldiers in Ronald Reagan's tax-cutting crusade to get the U.S. economy growing again. They have been fighting in that never-ending crusade ever since, with some important victories to their credit.

Now, however, their decision to leave public life and return home to Texas has many followers and fans alike shaking their heads in despair. Who will pick up their mantle? Who will provide new leadership in the continuing battle against excessively high tax rates and overbearing, anti-competitive government regulations?

You can barely count on one hand the number of free-market, tax-cutting leaders in Congress now. When Jack Kemp, the architect and cheerleader of Ronald Reagan's supply side revolution, left Congress near the end of the 1980s, he left a gaping hole in the ranks of the GOP's economic leadership.

Once Mr. Reagan left the stage, the GOP's voices of free markets, free trade and lower taxes was significantly reduced, and its message became confused and contradictory and even anti-free market.

Suddenly, conservatives were retreating to the days of Herbert Hoover, calling for a myopic focus on budget deficits and debt instead of lower taxes to spur growth and economic opportunity. Some so-called conservatives, sounding like the socialist, labor parties in Europe, were calling for more government-imposed tariffs on imports and spent their time battling NAFTA and trade expansion, which turned out to be the huge free market success that Mr. Reagan envisioned.

Only a few brave voices during this time stepped forward to keep the free market message alive. Outside of Congress, economist Lawrence Kudlow tirelessly lectured lawmakers and other GOP activists about what produces economic growth. So did Mr. Kemp and a few others.

Meantime, on Capitol Hill, it was largely Mr. Armey and Mr. Gramm who compiled a record of leadership that kept the flame of freedom burning on the economic front.

Quickly rising from the ranks of the backbenchers, Mr. Armey was a political leader from the very beginning of his congressional career in the fight against excessive government spending and economic reform.

He came up with the military base-closing commission idea and pulled together a coalition to turn it into law. He led on legislation to reduce farm subsidies and pushed it through Congress. He took the flat-tax proposal, an idea being championed by a few conservative academics, and traveled the country with it, forcing it into the center of political debate long before Steve Forbes ran for president.

He was the principal architect of the GOP's 1994 Contract With America agenda, which ended 40 years of Democratic control in the House and dramatically changed American politics. What followed over the ensuing years: Welfare-to-work reform, lower capital-gains taxes, and eventually the across-the-board tax rate cuts proposed and signed into law by President Bush earlier this year.

Mr. Gramm came into Congress like a whirlwind and helped win critical Democratic support for Mr. Reagan's budget-and-tax-cut proposals among his House colleagues in 1981.

After switching to the GOP and winning his Senate seat, he continued to be one of his party's most productive leaders, championing a succession of laws to curb federal spending, reduce taxes and deregulate banking and other sectors in the economy.

When Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton threatened a government takeover of the health care industry, Mr. Gramm hit the road in a nationwide speaking crusade to kill their plan. "If this ever passes, they will be hunting down Democrats with dogs," he told me.

By the time he returned to Washington from his nonstop road trips, the Clintons' plan was dead. Even Democratic leaders refused to bring it up for a vote. It was one of his greatest triumphs.

Phil Gramm has never let politics interfere with his basic economic beliefs. He was just as opposed to Bill Clinton's tax increases in 1993 as he was with the first President Bush's tax rises in 1990. And he said so.

No one is indispensable, of course, and others who are climbing the leadership ladder will easily replace Mr. Gramm and Mr. Armey. But the question now is as Wall Street Journal editor Paul Gigot asked recently who will "carry the tax-cutting, economic growth agenda" when they leave?

There are some younger pro-growth, tax-cut crusaders in the GOP's ranks, such as Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, but they are still inexperienced and learning the lessons of leadership.

It is sad to say, but right now there are very few leaders left in the GOP's House and Senate ranks who can eloquently make the case for risk-taking, wealth-creating, growth economics in a compelling and persuasive way. When Mr. Armey and Mr. Gramm are gone, those ranks will become dangerously thinner.


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